Climate, Shmita and Consumption

There are times when even atheists have trouble denying that there is a “hand of God” at work in history. How else to explain the coincidence of the largest ever gathering of humanity to assemble around the world to highlight the urgency of global action on climate change the week before Rosh haShana 5775, a shmitah (Sabbatical) year.

Organizers will tell you that the motivation for setting the September 21, 2014 date for the Peoples Climate March in New York City was the convening in that city of the U.N. General Assembly. Indeed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon offered his support for the march, keenly aware of the abysmal failure of the U.N. Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and hoping for better results at the next such conference scheduled for Paris in 2015. If we can take one message away from over 300,000 marchers in New York and an estimated 600,000 people mobilizing on the same day in 162 countries it should be that world leaders have to get past the “blame your neighbor” mentality that has prevented meaningful policy action by the international community on the issue of global warming.

Note: This article appeared in The Peoplehood Papers, Issue 14 November 2014.

One would hope that Jews who gathered for the yamim noraim might have heard their rabbis connecting these non-violent citizen-led demonstrations to Jewish themes. The most obvious connection was that 5775 is a year of shmita. Thanks to the leadership of organizations like Hazon in the United States and Teva Ivri in Israel, more than any time in my memory, this year shmita was elevated from an obscure Biblical practice to a Judaic principle that could hardly have more relevance to the world in which we currently live.

In the diaspora, where few Jews derive their livelihoods from agriculture, there has been a wider framing of how Jews might observe the Sabbatical year. In a brilliant and creatively conceived manifesto called Envisioning Sabbatical Culture, author Yigal Deutscher sets out specific action items focused on three areas: community food systems, community economic systems and community design systems, the latter essentially ideas of how we can rebuild the ethos of “the commons” in western societies that are so much driven by individualism.

Because Israel provides a laboratory for how we might actually implement the Jewish concept of shmita throughout an entire society there are even more exciting possibilities emerging. Under the banner of the Israel Shmita Initiative the Ministry of Welfare is considering how debt forgiveness can be extended to the poorest sectors of Israeli society so that they can have an opportunity to become full partners in Israel’s robust economy. The Ministry of Education is implementing curricula about shmita in the school system. And the Ministry of Environment is calling for a moratorium on open sea fishing so fish stocks can regenerate for the future. Fisherman affected by this moratorium can receive compensation from the government, an example of a State’s ability to incentivize certain kinds of behavior.

Of course it is one thing for organizations to mount messaging campaigns, put out manifestos and issue action plans. It is another thing to get people to change behavior. While we can take pride in the number of Jewish organizations that have taken leadership roles in different facets of the environmental movement we need to confront the one “dirty” little secret of our community. There is no single bigger threat to ongoing environmental degradation than consumption and the affluence of the Jewish community makes us among the world’s most avid consumers. In the same way that the United States is poorly positioned to lecture China and India on their rising levels of industrialization, Jews cannot lead by example on the planet’s existential challenge unless we start addressing our community’s excessive rate of consumption.

America represents only 5% of the world’s population but it consumes more than 20% of the world’s food, water and energy. Because consumption is directly correlated to wealth, we know that Jews make up the highest category of consumers in America. Jews will take pride in Israel’s booming economy but that economy also has given rise to the fourth highest rate of income inequality in the industrialized world. The proportion of income earned by Israel’s most wealthy is 14 times greater than Israel’s poorest citizens. The average proportion in the rest of the industrialized world is 9 to 1.

It is time for us to assign a moral value to the consequences of our over-consumption of everything, both as individuals and as a people. The best morality play for this lesson comes in the book of Numbers ch. 11. The Israelites are, at this point in the Biblical narrative, wandering in the desert and romanticizing their recollections of Egypt as a place where food, particularly meat, was abundant. In the desert God was providing a vegetarian option—Manna- on a daily basis, and a double portion on Friday so that no collection had to be done on Shabbat. But the Manna had become stale (pun intended) and the people called for a return to Egypt just so they could eat meat. Consumption had become more important than freedom.

Moses looks to God for some relief from the ongoing complaining of the people and God complies by sending a flock of quail that conveniently drop out of the sky in the vicinity of the Israelite encampment. The quail is both a response to an outcry and a test. And the Israelites fail the test. They consume so much quail so quickly that a plague overtakes the tribe and thousands die, many with the meat of quail still in their mouths. Our ancestors ate themselves to death. The Torah calls the place of this incident, Kibrot Taavah, the graves of consumption. It may foreshadow our own future. The graves of consumption, indeed!

It is exciting to think that one way that the Jewish people might be linked across national and geographic boundaries might be with an old/new ethic built around the ideas embedded in the concept of shmita. But part of this effort needs to include learning that the key to following a more sacred and ethical life is the discipline that comes from accepting limits to indulging our voracious appetites for whatever we want, whenever we want it. As we see more and more evidence of the world’s ecosystem spinning out of control in a way that might be irreversible we must realize that most of this is a result of human activity. Both human beings and the planet pay a steep price for a life without limits. We are digging our own graves of consumption.

We live in a world of great wealth and great poverty. The gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow. Jews have a long and proud tradition of carrying forward the ethic of the Biblical prophets calling us to ally with “the stranger, the orphan and the widow”, essentially the most vulnerable among us. But if we are to “walk the talk” in the realm of living more gently on the planet so as to preserve the beauty and abundance of God’s creation we must be prepared to adopt lifestyles that are more modest, more humble and more sustainable.

There are times when even atheists have trouble denying that there is a “hand of God” at work in history. How else to explain the coincidence of the largest ever gathering of humanity to assemble around the world to highlight the urgency of global action on climate change the week before Rosh haShana 5775, a shmitah (Sabbatical) year.

Note: This article appeared in The Peoplehood Papers, Issue 14 November 2014.

In several of my presentations to Haitians, my translator was a young minister named Johnny Felix. In his early 30s and with a smile that can light up a room, Pastor Johnny founded a church and a school in Leogane, literally out of nothing. I spent some time in his community and with the students in his school, and felt that with a little help, Pastor Johnny could actually make a big difference in the lives of these children. Less than 50 percent of Haitian children go to any elementary school at all!

Upon return home, I spoke about my experience from the bimah of the congregation where I am the founding rabbi: Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md. I proposed that we undertake a project related to Haiti with the primary mission of supporting Pastor Johnny’s NICL School, which at the time served 150 children in kindergarten through sixth grade (the school has now grown to almost 200 students). So as not to repeat the mistakes of so much post-disaster aid that is common in our society where tons of money comes into a poor country and then, within a year, all aid dries up, the requirement was that families commit to five years of funding at a relatively modest level of $100 annually.

Adat Shalom’s “Haiti Project” is now going into its seventh year. More than 100 Adat Shalom households now contribute $100 a year for five years, which allows us to support Pastor Johnny’s NICL School in Leogane. We call them “Haiti Partners.” As a result of this generosity, we are able to send between $5,000 and $8,000 per year to fund scholarships for student tuition, purchase equipment for the school and underwrite the school’s core budget. Pastor Johnny, who has almost single-handedly created the NICL school and a congregation in Leogane, said to me that Adat Shalom was sent to him by God. As much as that might hit our ears a bit strangely, there is no way to do the work that Pastor Johnny does day in and day out against overwhelming odds without such a “leap of faith.”

But what started out as a fundraising project with an interesting “development world” angle to it changed markedly a few months into our first campaign. A member of Adat Shalom named Pam Sommers approached me and said: “I already signed up to be a ‘Haiti Partner.’ I want to go to Haiti and do hands-on work on the ground like you did, Rabbi Sid.”

I responded: “You find a minyan of Adat Shalom members who are willing to go as well, and I will commit to lead the trip.”

Wouldn’t you know it? Pam got 16 people to go, a combination of adults and young people between the ages of 14 and 30.

In December 2018, I accompanied the fifth Adat Shalom Service Mission to Haiti. We now go every other year during winter break, when the weather is bearable in Haiti and kids in the United States are out of school. Every mission has had a wonderful mix of youth and adults. The families who have brought their children talk about it as the best thing they ever did with their family in terms of values learned, time spent and sense of fulfillment achieved. One family signed up with a bit of anxiety since this was going to take the place of their annual family trip to Cancun during winter break. Several years later, the family still talks about their Haiti experience. The trips to Cancun are more or less forgettable.

We have brought Pastor Johnny to Adat Shalom twice for visits to interact with our community and with our Torah School. His first visit in 2014 was the first time he had ever been on an airplane. Each time he joined me on the bimah, he taught some songs in French and English, and shared with our community how much Adat Shalom was a lifeline for the students of his school. In turn, Adat Shalom members are extremely proud of the project. In our foyer, there is a wall dedicated to the project with photos from our missions. One member wrote me a note saying that she herself could never participate in a mission because of the physical demands of the mission, but she is so proud to be a member of a synagogue whose social action was as expansive as supporting a Christian school in Haiti.

The conditions in Haiti are not for the faint of heart. Our accommodations are very modest. The work is hard—hauling cement, moving rocks, painting, bending rebar. Even in December, it is well into the 90s and humid. But we have accomplished so much. During our 2011 and 2012 missions, we worked side by side with Haitians to build houses in Lambi Village to provide shelter for those whose homes collapsed during the 2010 earthquake. In 2014, we went back to Lambi Village to visit. The community was thriving. We were greeted like royalty, each family eager to show us their homes. During the construction, we made makeshift mezuzot of plywood to give to each homeowner. Wouldn’t you know it? The mezuzot were displayed prominently in each home! Guess how that made us feel? Oh. And they also kicked our butt in a game of soccer.

At Pastor Johnny’s NICL compound, we have accomplished a minor miracle. Over the course of two discreet missions, we broke ground and then finished a third structure on the school’s modest campus. Half of it will serve as a dining hall for the students. The second part became a computer lab with 15 work stations—something almost unheard of in this rural part of Haiti. It was made possible because we first funded a solar tower to provide the school with a constant source of electricity. When we first started working there, the school was making do on three to five hours of electricity a day. One of our mission participants had been inspired to fund the creation of the computer lab, which was a major boon to both the students and faculty of the school.

Another proud creation of our Adat Shalom mission was the creation of a vegetable garden that we dedicated and named “Gan HaMazon.” When we dedicated it, Pam Sommers’s husband, Fred Pinkney, actually made the dedication speech in front of the students of the school in their native language, Creole. Many of the 200 students in the school are food insecure, so we focused our attention on that aspect of community development. On our 2016 mission, we ran a day camp from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day for 50 students of the school since it was vacation time. (These families are not going to Cancun). The focus was on how to work in the vegetable garden and food preparation.

On each mission, in a variety of settings, we work side by side with Haitians, and we use that opportunity to gain insight into the challenges they face in their lives. In so many cases, we walk away inspired by the dignity of the Haitians who live in circumstances that are close to what would be our worst nightmare.

The experience is always a deeply spiritual one for us. Every evening after dinner, we gather in the dorm where we stay. We use the time to share the highs and lows of our very intense days, and then to enrich our experience by studying Judaic texts and values from a sourcebook that I put together specifically for our mission. The conversations are wide-ranging. How can Americans be most helpful in a country where poverty, illiteracy and illness are so widespread? How can we help Pastor Johnny and the NICL school become self-sustaining? What are the ethical ramifications of our lives of privilege when compared to the deprivation that is the lot of most Haitians? On our last day, every person has a chance to share something they learned during our mission: a) about how to be most helpful to people in a developing country like Haiti; b) about Judaism and their Jewish identity; and c) about themselves. More than a few of the mission participants talk about the experience as “transformative” and “life-changing.”

When all is said and done, spiritual practice is about connecting to something greater than ourselves. Our mission participants, who may or may not be interested in prayer or meditation, feel much more deeply connected to the Haitians with whom they work, with all of humanity, with the mystery of being by engaging in the practice of literally loving their neighbors as themselves. I know that I, too, have grown immensely from the experience. Much of my activism has focused on tzedek—trying to effect changes in programs and policies through political advocacy. Yet to ground that commitment in acts of hesed (lovingkindness), spending time face to face with some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, is to understand something about one’s own humanity and the common struggle for human dignity that crosses all lines of race, nationality and religion.

I believe that our service missions represent the very best of what we can and should be doing as a Jewish community. The participants become a tightly bonded team during our challenging days on the work site, and we became a family in our “down time” at the dorm. With each passing day, we become more inspired to give of ourselves to help those who have so little, but who live their lives with great dignity and with deep faith.

Finally, we take great pride in “walking the talk” of Torah. We aren’t just talking about Jewish values; we are living those values every day. In a sermon I once delivered at Pastor Johnny’s church on Sunday morning, I said that despite the differences in nationality, race, religion and socio-economic status that separate us and the Haitians who were our hosts, three things tie us together. Both communities are faith communities committed to hesed, acts of lovingkindness; tzedek, acts of justice; and shalom, acts that advance spiritual wholeness and peace.

At a time when synagogues are losing market share and Next Gen Jews are deeply ambivalent about how much they are prepared to identify as Jews, I can testify that this kind of service mission is a game-changer. Synagogue leaders should think seriously about sponsoring both domestic and international service missions. It allows Jews to act on their values and also serves to connect Jews with the most vulnerable people in the world, a central teaching of Torah.